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Study tests "air dancers" as bird deterrents in vineyards and orchards

by Linda Jones McKee
Dr. Catherine Lindell is conducting a study to see whether inflatable “air dancers” prevent bird damage in vineyards.
Watkins Glen, N.Y.—Inflatable dancing tube men, a.k.a. “air dancers,” are a familiar sight across the country as advertising devices at auto sales lots and car washes. Now, these 20-foot-tall, fan-driven characters are being tested as “scare dancers” to drive away birds in vineyards and orchards in New York, Michigan and the Pacific Northwest.

Grapes are naturally sweet, not so that humans can make wine from them, but to attract birds and other animals to consume them and then disperse the grape seeds. Not surprisingly, as a result flocks of birds are a major problem in many vineyards across the country. Over the years, growers have tried numerous methods to minimize their damage to grapes and other fruit crops, including the following devices:

• Noise cannons may scare away birds initially, but neighbors often complain about the noise, and after a short period of time, the birds become used to the sound.

• Inflated plastic hawks, shiny balloons and flapping Mylar tape also have limited effect.

• Recorded predator and other bird distress calls may work occasionally, but birds soon realize there is no predator in sight.

• Bird netting may be more effective when applied correctly, but it is expensive, hard to install and even harder to remove, and difficult to work around. Nets are not totally bird-proof, and once inside, birds can damage or consume the grapes.

• High fencing may keep out hungry deer, but it does nothing to drive off flocks of birds.

Dr. Catherine Lindell, associate professor of zoology at Michigan State University, is coordinating a Specialty Crop Research Initiative Project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and titled “Limiting bird damage to fruit crops: Integrating economic, biological and consumer information to determine testable management strategies for the future.” The long-term goal of the study is “to provide producers with cost-effective, environmentally sustainable bird-management strategies.” Researchers at Michigan State University, Cornell University, Washington State University, Trinity Western University and Oregon State University are participating in the study. Their objectives are to:

1) quantify economic consequences of bird damage for producers, consumers and regional economies;

2) determine how bird damage varies within and across spatial scales (orchard, landscape, region);

3) identify amounts of damage attributable to specific bird species across crops and regions;

4) investigate consumer responses to management strategies and potential effects on marketing;

5) test management strategies for efficacy. We will use the information generated by addressing objectives 1-4 in a systems framework to determine management strategies to be tested in different crops and regions.

As part of that project, researchers from Cornell worked with four wineries in the Finger Lakes region this past summer to test the use of air dancers to reduce bird damage in vineyards. The inflatable dancers have flapping arms, reflective hair and “fingers,” bright colors and wide smiles. While the dancers can be found in heights ranging from 6 to 20 feet, the taller inflatables are preferable in a vineyard location so they can be seen above the vines. One potential problem for locating the air dancers in a vineyard is that the air blower used to inflate the dancer must have a power source.

Chris Stamp, winemaker at Lakewood Vineyards in Watkins Glen, N.Y., told Wines & Vines that while more testing will need to be done, he thinks the inflatable flapping tube man, known as “Wacky Wayne” at Lakewood, did his job. While the researchers want to see what impact the inflatables have on specific varieties of grapes, and if there is any influence of distance from the inflatable on bird damage, Stamp reported that “it’s my sense that it worked. It sure scared our horses to death!”

Ted Marks, owner of Atwater Estate Vineyards in Burdett, N.Y., has tried air cannons, prerecorded bird distress calls and shiny balloons. He reported that “Mr. Pinot” at Atwater “has done the best job of anything.”

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